The lizard's warning

Aggressive, sometimes violent teenagers, come to grips with their own vulnerabilities by caring for helpless animals.

lizard 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
lizard 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A lizard tries to get through the wire netting of the pheasants' cage. Its large head slips through, but not its wide shoulders. The lizard can't move forward or backward. "Motti" (not his real name) notices the trapped lizard. The 16-year-old kneels on the ground and watches silently. His friend, "Yossi," sees him and comes over. "I'll help get it through," he offers. He finds a stick and pokes at the lizard's head, trying to knock it off. Another hooded teenage boy with a pierced tongue, "Mike," comes over to watch the fun. Mike looks for a stone to "help." Motti goes around to the other side of the netting and pulls off the lizard's tail. By this time, the boys hear my calls to try and free the poor animal by cutting the wire around its neck. Motti goes off to get some pliers and the lizard is finally set free. But Mike and Yossi run after the injured animal with sticks. Luckily, it disappears up the nearest tree, out of their reach. I don't know if the lizard survived for very long after this ordeal, but I do know that the boys clearly felt no compassion for it. Are they capable of compassion at all, I wonder? Next time, they might find a cat that is too weak to escape, and one day, their victim could be an old woman who has just withdrawn some money from the bank. The 13th-century philosopher, physician, and rabbi Nahmanides noted that "cruelty enters, infects and spreads through the soul - the [biblical] commandments are intended to teach us the value of compassion." Would other boys also take pleasure in poking at a trapped lizard? Would another spectator have interrupted the boys in their play, as I did? Perhaps this adolescent behavior is not a sign of cruelty in their souls, and my extrapolation from lizard to cat to old woman is exaggerated? Israeli law prohibits torture, cruelty and abuse of animals (The Protection of Animals Law, 1994). The law is intended both to protect them and remind us of our moral imperative to treat them with compassion. The Let Animals Live and Anonymous For Animal Rights organizations try to make sure that this law is enforced. Recent issues have involved the force-feeding of geese for liver paté, the ill-treatment of cows, cats and dogs, and even the treatment of alligators in captivity; but not lizards. So why do I fuss? The three teens I observed have already been in trouble with the law and are now, by court order, in a full-time rehabilitation program at the [non-profit] Wing of Love park at Kibbutz Kfar Menachem. While abusing the lizard is not their first act of aggression, each boy is in charge of an area of the park and the animals that live in it. In addition to the pheasants, there are other birds, including flamingos, cranes, emus, curassows, vulturine guinea fowl, peacocks and decorative poultry. The boys also care for wallabies, alpaca, coons, ibexes, deer, donkeys and horses. None of the program's at-risk participants have harmed any of these unusual animals. And yet they picked on a small lizard, an easy victim. Worried that the violence perpetrated against the lizard could spread to other, larger victims, including people, we invited a veterinarian, Dr. Eran Ziv of Ness Ziona, to come and talk to the boys about cruelty to animals. He told them a chilling story from his own boyhood. When Ziv was only 15, he was given an air gun. He spent his free time shooting - first at bottles, then at bike reflectors, and soon at birds. He reasoned that since he was such a good shot and could hit them in the head, the birds did not suffer. One day, when he and a friend were out looking for birds to shoot, some farmers called them over to come and destroy the pigeons that had got into their granary and were causing damage. The boys cocked their guns, and soon there were dozens of dead pigeons on the ground. Each boy took an empty sack and loaded it with his half of the kill, to show off to his father at home. Ziv's father immediately began to pluck the birds' feathers and tell stories about the rabbits he had killed as a child and the tasty stews he had concocted from them. That evening, as the family sat down to dinner, the father dished out healthy portions of the pigeon stew. Ziv cut his portion into small pieces and thought that by eating the dish his father had cooked, he would please him. But he couldn't. He felt disgusted. He ran to his room and buried his air gun at the bottom of his closet. It stayed there for 20 years, untouched. Ziv went on to tell the boys about his relationship with his father. The vet explained that he brought the dead birds home in order to win praise, although his dad was a man whom he could never please. Nothing his son did was good enough - not even killing all those birds. Ziv lost hope of gaining his father's love, and after a while, gave up trying. Soon the boy began to identify with animals, especially helpless ones that are unable to protect themselves. "When we're cruel to an animal, we may think we're powerful and have control, but this feeling is only an illusion," the vet said. "Do you really think that we have control? No! When I killed the innocent pigeons, I wasn't in control of my life, because I love animals. I was blinded by my desire to please my father. Did I lead my life the way I wanted? No, I wouldn't want to kill in order to win someone's love. And did the final result get me what I wanted? No, because I couldn't stand what I did and my father never softened towards me." Then Ziv asked the boys at Wing of Love to think about their power, on one hand, and their feelings of helplessness, on the other. "Are you trying to hide your helplessness by engaging in acts of aggression that make you look and feel manly?" he asked. "Or can you relieve the pain of your helplessness by caring for animals kindly?" Ziv suggested that a real man, a "gever," is not one who sublimates his vulnerability into violence. A brave man, rather, faces his vulnerability, chooses to free himself from the aggressive survival skills he developed in his childhood, and takes responsibility for his actions. The teenagers listened to him. Mike and his friends in the park have grown up as victims of dysfunctional homes in difficult neighborhoods and as failures in school. "I started out abusing cats," admitted Mike, "and then I went on to victimizing people." The lizard and the cats are the victims of victims. They are also living creatures, and Mike has to learn to respect the sanctity of life. These three boys are lucky. Their placement at the Wing of Love park enables them to develop compassion and responsibility by caring for animals. The process of re-education will take time, but it is the only method at the moment that might prevent these boys from hurting other innocent victims later on. By giving aggressive teenagers a chance to consider animals' feelings, we give them an opportunity for change. One boy's breakthrough came after caring for a family of rabbits. For another, the collapse of a pregnant donkey was a turning point. For a third, the vet's story made a difference. It's easy to lock up young offenders. It's a much harder task to steer these unhappy children onto a new path, to show them how to take responsibility for their actions and enable them to discover dignity and empathy. But this is obviously the right thing to do. Dr. Michele Klein is a volunteer at the Wing of Love organization for rehabilitating youth at risk: [email protected]